Celtic tigers triumph in Beethoven

Barry Douglas/Camerata Ireland
Barry Douglas/Camerata Ireland
Album cover

Ireland isn't known for its classical music. In Ireland if you want to study classical music you have to travel somewhere else according to pianist Barry Douglas. That's one reason he formed his all-Irish chamber ensemble Camerata Ireland in 1999.

His goal is to celebrate the wealth of talent from his homeland. He accomplishes that by bringing together the best Irish musicians to make great music in their native country.

Barry Douglas and his 30-piece chamber orchestra have attracted worldwide attention for their captivating performances, and for their recent recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos.

In 2005 the first recording in this cycle featuring the Beethoven Piano Concerti 2 and 4 earned rave reviews. The latest in the series includes the Piano Concerto No. 1 and No. 5.

This recording pairs the first piano concerto Beethoven played in public, with the last concerto he composed, but was unable to perform due to his increasing deafness. The Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, is Beethoven's first published piano concerto.

Beethoven was well aware that a brilliant concerto could pave his way to success in Vienna.

To ensure all of Vienna would hear what this young lion had to offer, he set the soloist apart from the orchestra. To grab the audience's attention he builds anticipation with an extended orchestral introduction.

The quiet entry of the piano requires attentive listening especially in the hands of Barry Douglas who plays with great feeling.

Camerata Ireland frames the soloist with bold orchestral statements that surround the eloquent solo sections. At times it sounds as if there are four hands on the piano rather than two. Beethoven no doubt wanted to increase the "wow" factor with the Viennese audience, and Barry Douglas-for all his sensitivity-executes this parlor trick beautifully.

Beethoven's last piano concerto was given its Viennese premiere 12 years later in 1812. The composer's hearing had declined so steadily he was unable to play the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major Op. 73. Today, this work is known as "The Emperor."

Beethoven rarely gave nicknames to his works. It seems that the idea for the title may have come from Johann Baptist Cramer, a prominent pianist and publisher. As far as Beethoven was concerned, Cramer was the greatest pianist of their day, and that may be why Beethoven allowed the nickname to stick.

This work earns the title. There's a stark contrast between Beethoven's last and first piano concertos. This time Beethoven makes an adventurous statement as the piano makes its entrance right away with the orchestra. Douglas conducts with subtle nuances and his orchestra responds on a dime adding to the excitement and beauty of this performance. The transition between the tender adagio and the final rondo is masterful. Camerata Ireland hangs on to the last few notes as Barry Douglas quietly guides them into the rousing finale.

Ireland doesn't have a lengthy history of classical music but Barry Douglas and his chamber ensemble Camerata Ireland are doing everything they can to change that. Their first recording in their cycle of Beethoven piano recordings helped put Ireland on the classical map and this one will help ensure it stays there.

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